ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
This week, we've been examining the impact of California's tough three-strikes law. Those charged and convicted under that statute can face 25 years to life in prison. And as we've reported, the third strike can be any felony, not just a violent crime.
Today, NPR's Ina Jaffe wraps up her series with the story of people who've challenged the law with mixed results.
INA JAFFE: California's three-strikes law has imposed some very long sentences on some very dangerous people. But Leandro Andrade wasn't one of those, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine.
Mr. ERWIN CHEMERINSKY (Dean, Law School, University of California, Irvine): His last offense was stealing $153 worth of video tapes from Kmart stores in San Bernardino.
JAFFE: Now, Andrade had had his run-ins with the law. He was a drug addict, and he'd committed some residential burglaries years before. So when he stole those videos, that was a third strike. Actually Andrade grabbed the videos from two different Kmarts, so he was prosecuted for two third-strikes. As a result, says Chemerinsky…
Mr. CHEMERINSKY: He is sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 50 years.
JAFFE: Chemerinsky represented Andrade before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and that court agreed that a sentence of 50 years to life for shoplifting was cruel and unusual punishment. But the Supreme Court overturned that ruling on a 5-to-4 vote. The majority found that Andrade's sentence was not disproportionate because there was still the possibility of parole — though he won't be eligible until he's 87 years old.
Professor LAWRENCE MARSHALL (Law, Stanford Law School): There's no question it was a setback. The result was very unfortunate…
JAFFE: …says Stanford Law professor Lawrence Marshall. He's established a clinic where Stanford law students work to win the release of nonviolent third-strikers. So far, they've persuaded state courts to release five men from prison.
Prof. MARSHALL: The judges said that had they understood at the time of sentencing what we were now explaining about the nature of the offense and the background of the offender, that they should've recognized that it was a case that was outside the spirit of three-strikes.
JAFFE: The Stanford clinic takes very few cases and picks them very carefully. They haven't represented anyone whose prior strikes included a violent crime, and the third strikes are always for minor offenses. Marshall wants to show the public what he views as the irrationality of the law. For example:
Prof. MARSHALL: You've stolen some socks from a store — and that's a real case of ours — that were valued at a few dollars. We are going to now imprison you, at a cost of $40,000 to $50,000 a year, to make sure you don't steal some more socks.
JAFFE: Marshall hopes that publicizing such cases will lead to a change in the law. But three-strikes has become so entrenched in California's criminal justice system that the political will to change it just isn't there, says Mike Vitello, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and an expert on the three-strikes law.
Professor MIKE VITELLO (Law, University of the Pacific): Most Democrats lack the courage to take the issue on. The governor indicated some willingness to do it and then he backed off. And I think the Republicans are totally cynical. They are waiting for the day when the Democrats are able to get some kind of sentencing reform. And then if anything goes wrong, they will accuse the Democrats of being soft on crime.
JAFFE: One man serving a three-strikes sentence decided what he needed was a miracle.
Mr. ISAAC RAMIREZ: Father, we just come before you to thank you that you've given us this opportunity as meant to draw together once again Lord in your presence…
JAFFE: Isaac Ramirez has been out of prison for seven years. He now leads a men's' support group at his church in Riverside County, east of L.A.
Mr. RAMIREZ: And that our plan and purpose would become of what you want and your desire and your will for lives, but not ours. In Jesus name, Amen.
Unidentified Group: Amen.
JAFFE: In 1996, Ramirez took a VCR worth about 200 bucks from a Sears store -just walked out with it in broad daylight. He got caught, handed over the merchandise and admitted having done something stupid. Unfortunately, he'd taken some stuff from stores a few years before. He knew that was going to matter. He never dreamed how much.
Mr. RAMIREZ: I mean, I've never hurt anybody. But I still broke the law and I understood that I was going to do some time. How much, I didn't know.
JAFFE: Since taking that VCR was a third strike, 25 to life. While Ramirez was in prison, he rediscovered the faith of his childhood.
Mr. RAMIREZ: Having the word of God before me, I was able to obtain hope and understanding. It began to change me while I was in prison.
JAFFE: And his path to salvation led straight to the prison law library.
Mr. RAMIREZ: I had to study both state law and federal law. I was very blessed in learning how to do both.
JAFFE: Ramirez filed his own appeals. There were many setbacks. But in 2002, a federal court finally ordered him released from prison. He reunited with his family and began working at his church. Then, it was the state's turn to appeal and argue that he belonged back behind bars. Ramirez didn't have money for a lawyer, but he decided he didn't need one.
Mr. RAMIREZ: God had brought me this far, so I know that he would complete it.
JAFFE: So, Ramirez presented his own case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Mr. RAMIREZ: Oh, that was an experience. We had half the church there. I couldn't keep them away.
JAFFE: Ramirez needed the support. He had been planning to claim cruel and unusual punishment. Just a few months earlier, though, the Supreme Court shot down that argument in Leandro Andrade case. But Ramirez stuck to it. As you can hear in this recording made by the court, he just claimed he was more deserving than Andrade.
Mr. RAMIREZ: First of all, Andrade has more prison priors than I do - number one. He was on parole while he committed two, if I believe, he committed two additional crimes.
JAFFE: Several times the judges referred to this Ramirez guy in the third person, not realizing it was the man standing before them. Judge Andrew Kleinfeld didn't figure it out till the end of the hearing.
Mr. ANDREW KLEINFELD (Judge): I had been thinking that you were represented, I hadn't realized you were pro se. But you've done a fine job for yourself.
JAFFE: So, fine in fact that he won his case and remains a free man. Ramirez says that when he was in prison, he met a lot of men who really did belong there. In fact, everybody we spoke to for this story thinks there needs to be a three-strikes law, that some people should be put away for a long time — if not forever. The federal appeals court decided Isaac Ramirez wasn't one of those. But he so easily could have been.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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